Politics & Other Mistakes: The war after the war

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If you like your political fights ugly, you’re going to enjoy the rest of this year. After the Legislature gets done screaming about abortion, the real battle on that issue will begin. And the shrieking might last all the way to November.

Anti-abortion forces know they don’t have the votes to stop Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ bill to expand abortion access. The legislation, which would allow doctors to perform the procedure at any point in a pregnancy if they deem it medically necessary, has enough co-sponsors to pass both the House and Senate. All the abortion foes can do before going down to defeat is make a lot of nasty noise.

That clamor has already begun. Republican state Sen. Lisa Keim of Dixfield called the change “depraved” and “barbaric.” GOP state Rep. Laurel Libby of Auburn said it “gives the word ‘extreme’ new meaning.” Another Republican representative, Reagan Paul of Winterport, told a news conference, “To say this bill is evil would be a severe understatement.”

Al DiamonThe GOP then tried to stop the measure from being referred to committee for a public hearing. House Assistant Minority Leader Amy Arata claimed the members of the Judiciary Committee were unqualified to judge the impact of the measure, which she characterized as “beneath the dignity of this body.”

Majority Democrats shrugged off all that rhetoric and moved the legislation along. And they’ll almost certainly do the same thing at every step of the legislative process, until the bill is sent to Mills for her signature.

But all that Republican posturing won’t have gone to waste. Its purpose was never to change enough votes to kill the measure. Instead, it’s laying the groundwork for what comes next:

A People’s Veto.

Maine’s Constitution allows opponents of laws passed by the Legislature to overturn them by forcing the issue to referendum. But it’s not easy. Abortion opponents will have to collect over 68,000 signatures of registered voters in the 90 days after the Legislature adjourns, probably sometime in June. If they accomplish that by the September deadline, the new law will be put on hold until a vote can be held in November.

Under normal circumstances, getting that many signatures during the summer would be difficult, because people tend to be apathetic about politics when they’re vacationing, drinking beer or doing that thing that’s been known to cause pregnancy. But maybe not this time.

The religious right, defined as folks who are so devout they still go to church even when it’s sunny and 85 degrees outside, is already gearing up to circulate petitions. The Christian Civic League of Maine and Rep. Libby’s Speak Up for Life group are not so quietly raising money and signing up volunteers to launch a People’s Veto campaign the moment they are legally able to do so.

The anti-abortionists’ strategy seems to be that by making as much fuss as possible at every step of the legislative process, the pro-choice forces won’t pay much attention to the real plan. Once the bill passes and is signed, they’ll be so busy celebrating they’ll allow the veto crowd a head start on organizing. By the time the pro-abortion side recovers from its victory hangover, the bulk of the needed signatures will already have been collected.

There is, however, one small glitch in this plan to abort the abortion law. Polls show that a solid majority of Maine voters favor legal abortion. To win at the polls in November, the veto mongers will have to redirect the argument so it’s no longer a straight question of supporting or opposing the procedure. They’ve already begun that process by claiming Mills’ bill will allow even unlicensed weirdos to perform abortions without penalty of law.

That isn’t true. The legislation removes criminal penalties for doctors and other licensed medical professionals who abort late-term pregnancies. Maine’s law against unlicensed medical quacks would remain intact.

But just because the claim is false doesn’t mean it won’t be effective, perhaps more so than the anti-abortion coalition’s usual tactic of forcing the unwary to view bloody pictures of aborted fetuses.

But they’ll use those anyway, because it’s going to be a war zone out there.

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